Until recently I didn’t know much about Edith Piaf other than her song Non, je ne regrette rien, which has always been a go-to for anyone sticking their chin out to the world.
I vaguely recall my grandmother saying “ooh she had a tragic life” whenever songs by the ‘little sparrow’ were played on the radio (seemingly incessantly on a Sunday lunchtime throughout my childhood, as roast beef and Yorkshire puds were cooking to perfection).
I don’t know if it’s osmosis but the Edith Piaf ‘thing’ finally clicked for me in Leeds Playhouse Courtyard Theatre last night. Prior to its touchdown in West Yorkshire, this latest incarnation of Pam Gem’s 1978 play has had some mixed reviews, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The performance opens with a typically Parisian backdrop, expertly crafted by Frankie Bradshaw, but everyone’s caught a case of ‘Mockney’ – and the decision to re-site London’s East End across the Channel initially didn’t feel quite right. Having said that, by the end of act one it was no longer noticeable.
From the outset, Jenna Russell as Piaf makes it abundantly clear that our anti-heroine really did have a tragic life. And then some. Prostitution, racketeering and violence, not to mention collaboration with German occupiers, provided the launch pad for a global career – and a life that was cut tragically short at the age of 47.
Club owner Louis Leplée, played masterfully by Garry Robson, is credited with giving Piaf her big break. Later, she was mixed up in his murder, but it didn’t check her progress. Robson is an accomplished performer but it’s hardly surprising: his career to date includes some important directorial work which transcends the creative sector.
Sally Ann Triplett’s Toine also has Piaf’s strength and vulnerability in buckets. I’m guessing a Piaf scholar could tell us much about the complex and fractious relationship between the two women which remained until the end, but director Adam Penfold is able to hold a lens to the pair that left me in no doubt as to how important friendship is.
The nine-strong ensemble are fresh from their run at Nottingham Playhouse and each one deserves mention. Samuel James as Bruno, Joseph Prowen as Louis who, as her agent, tries to hold the lurching Piaf on course in later life. Laura Pitt-Pulford is incredible as the sophisticated Marlene Dietrich. Louis Gaunt and Zheng Xi Yong dazzle in a wonderfully choreographed boxing scene. And there’s Matthew Woodyatt, whose role as Charles Aznavor was poignant.
The music throughout the performance, sung in both French and English is exquisite. The decision to use both languages aims to help audiences connect with the pieces. It works.
Meanwhile, Russell captures Piaf’s tone and intonation perfectly. The ensemble’s rendition of Les Trois Cloche (Little Jimmy Brown) is a masterstroke.
Audiences will be moved by this tragic life story that takes us from nothing, to Carnegie Hall, and back again to nothing. While there’s clearly more to the little sparrow than can be conveyed in two hours on stage, the cast and crew are to be applauded for their new interpretation of a familiar story.
Piaf runs until August 7, 2021 at Leeds Playhouse. For more information, follow this link: https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/piaf-2/